Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Autumn is creeping into our early mornings which is nice for running but not so nice for sitting around after a run! Sunday I went south for the first time ever and ran the Jackie Gibson half marathon. This race sees us weave over the south ridge of the Witswatersrand, and with the word 'ridge' in any sentence means hills. The first 10km's felt like it was uphill all the way. They weren't even the steep hills that carry no shame when walked, but they were those sneaky deceiving ones, that make us lean forward and breathe heavier!

The race had a huge field of runners, which meant a 20 minute drive up the last km towards the parking, luckily our race started half an hour after the marathoners, so we weren't as rushed as some. The nice thing at the stadium grounds was the lack of queues at the downstairs toilets which most runners didn't realise were there. There was a queue for the gents however, which is really unusual so we sailed past the wide eyed men into the Ladies, and the front chap was screaming at us to stand in the queue. 'Ha, sorry, I don't think so!'

The misty weather threatened rain, as we stood under the very loud speakers at the start. Luckily the clouds held back any urge to soak thousands of runners and we had great cool weather all the way. We ran around some lovely unspoilt ground which is part of the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve which is still looking lush and green due to all this late season rain. When the road flattened out near the end, I trotted a little quicker than usual wrapped up in my stories in my head. I think some runners may call it 'entering the zone' as I didn't notice much around me, which is unusual. My zone was crashed when I noticed heavy breathing and that it wasn't coming from me. A heavy set runner came up from behind and groaned, and this made me realise that in the absence of hills, or the early part of any run, I am actually a silent breather. This is strange as my 'old thinking' idea of runners used to be that they would be panting all the way, but it's the panters who seem to be in the minority! Now I quite enjoy the normal tempo of breath and the added bonus of being able to chat!

This race was rather unlike 'Om die Dam' in that there was a lot less chatting and more quiet, which seems strange considering this was less than half the distance of 'ODD'.

Our club hosted a breakfast roll, and some warm coffee, which warmed me up in the dull weather. It is lovely watching the fast marathoners finish their race in excellent style for a change, instead of them watch us finish our marathon three weeks later, that is the nice part of doing half the distance!

With 60 days to Comrades, I feel nice and calm about my training, hopefully it stays like this!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Been too busy pounding the pavements to write the past few weeks. Well not really, but I did lay to rest my 'Om die dam' demon' which haunted me since 2009. Om die dam (ODD) is a 50km race which goes round a rather large expanse of water called the Hartebeespoort dam west of Pretoria. Two words in the last sentence should be enough to make me nervous. 50km and Pretoria. This city is notoriously hotter than Jozi and 50km is a rather long way. People in other countries train for months for such an event, we put it down to a training run. Only elite athletes and madmen would use this kind of language for training. Us, South Africans who are so lucky to have such a huge running race calendar can pick and choose world class races every weekend. This past weekend I chose to go back there.

Not that there were no gnashing of teeth coming to this decision mind!

My first and only experience of this race burnt holes into my cerebellum, both from the sun and teeny traces of leaking plutonium as i dragged my way past Pelindaba Nuclear station of the eighties. I vowed never to go back there on foot. My sister lives in the area so I am fairly familiar with the streets and that is why the zig zagging of the last 8km's messed with my head so much. But this was last time, as in the past! Another demon if not finishing a race was bubbling around my skull and that is of the Comrades last year, so I knew that this could be a good 'road test' for me. I convinced my running partner Marlene who shared ghastly memories, to return with me. I talked her into it with stories of it being close to Jozi, cheaper for transport and if we did a good re-run here, then it would stand us in good stead for Comrades. Am I so glad things went according to plan!

After driving some of the route to overnight at sisters, I did some mental preparation and felt ready. Late in the afternoon I got a message on my phone from the race organisers wishing me well and giving a weather report. I shook my head a little at the predicted overcast 23 degrees while I stood in front of the fan trying to cool down. They must have made a mistake. But thankfully they were right!

Mist covered the mountains around the school starting point as the masses of people milled about waiting for the 21st race to begin. I knew to hold back to prevent early burnout like the last time when I tried to keep up with my one running machine friend. The gun went off and we took almost 2 minutes to cross the starting line. The running snake weaved it's way through the sleepy town hugging the sides of the dam towards the tunnel, past the zoo and restaurants, art galleries and fancy houses. The green water didn't smell as bad as it could have, and going through the tunnel the necessary shouting and chanting left behind the runner's legacy for an echoing moment or two. The dam wall is spectacular to cross as recent rains made the flow very strong, and cheering kids with vuvuzela's added to the festivities.

We stopped and looked at the view from both sides of the wall this time just to let it all sink in.

The weather was still cool with sparks of sunlight sneaking through for a moment, but I think the race organisers got a good word in with someone as the cloud stuck around for the morning. The breeze kept the temperatures cool and my mood light!

We passed the first major uphill, Commando Nek, without too much heaving and puffing and we teased some slow moving passengers in taxi's to join us as it would be quicker. Turning onto the long bridge across the dam I spotted some Fish eagles on some stick-like trees in the water. Admittedly they were in silhouette but I must admit I sounded assertive so my friends were convinced! The road towards the t-junction seemed to stretch for some time but we were still feeling cheerful. As we past Pecanwood estate there were some spectators to greet us. The road weaves it's way past Hartebeesthoek Astronomy Observatory before the dreaded Pelindaba stretch begins. More spectators cheered us on, but I think the radiation in my bloodstream must have affected my eyes as there was a spectator in a lycra green bodysuit standing smiling at us. Perhaps he was on his stagnight, or maybe his friends put him up to a dare but it got us woman shaking our head in disbelief!

Spirits were still high as we reached the first Pelindaba gate, and I mentioned that this is where my 'wheels fell off' the last time. Marlene mentioned too that this was the start of her race. Cerlest reminded us that that was all in the past and today was a new day. Too true and it got us up the whole road without any negative mood, flash or growl. In fact the remainder of the race was like that. Even when we realised that the Comrades 6 hour cutoff was out of reach, we just dug deeper into the sweets along the roadside! Some strange smells made our noses curl, and for once they couldn't be blamed on the runner tummies (I hope!) Resident sister acknowledged the presence of a chicken farm in that area.

We caught up with two other friends and we proceeded to enjoy ourselves for the remaining 16km's. Cerlest went on ahead on her own, which was good, being her first ODD. We knew how this race ends and we were in no rush to get to that nasty little uphill at around 2km's to go. Even the meandering through the streets which demeaned me last time, never made a dent on my good mood and instead we enjoyed pointing out cute dogs sleeping on the stoeps of the houses. We had a hard task driver though and she wouldn't let us rest for too long and pointed out markers were we had to pick up the pace. Even the last uphill had us 'shuffling and relaxing' a little. Finally the stadium beckoned us and we finished the race in a very leisurely time of 6hours and 24 minutes. What a well organised race, and I must say that that ODD demon has most certainly been laid to rest.

Pietermaritzburg, this year I am going to see what your stadium looks like from the finish line!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

This is a long one....

My latest in my running adventure was a trip down to the land of Ostriches and heat in Oudsthoorn. The Infantry School Cango Marathon was being held again, and I had heard and read such nice things about it that I wanted to try it out. Yup, it was a little bit out of town, but these races are a great way to see the country, plus, it is a completely different vibe running in another province. We are so lucky to have so many choices when it comes to well-hosted, pretty races, but it can sometimes prove quite a dilemma as to which race to choose.

At the beginning of this year my friend and I sorted through which races we would like to do and which one's we could afford to do. This Karoo race seemed to be high on the list so research was done, bus ticket was bought, much to our dismay, the cheap flights were all used up by other people (ahem!! nudge nudge!)

Three of us set off on the Thursday afternoon for our run in the sun. The bus trip down was as pleasant as a bus trip could be, but a very long drawn out seven hour journey to Bloemfontein, made us quite cranky and bleary eyed! Sneaking some shut eye in between stops, we woke up to the most spectacular scene of the Swartberg Mountain Range blanketed in the distance. The road became windier and the scenery all the more breathtaking and there were glimpses of the Scottish Highlands which flooded my memories. This country, of course, is very different from the cold green moors a world away, especially when the baboons made themselves visible. I swear one them waved at me! Okay it was very early in the morning, but what a scene to wake up to.

On alighting in Oudtshoorn we made our way to our guest lodge on foot, getting a little lost with different directions. The morning air was still very comfortable which deceived us into thinking that the temperatures would be similar to Jozi. Lunchtime showed us, that we were in fact in a semi-desert district. The sun blazed it's way through our soles and we walked back into town to refuel our tummies. The town is larger than I remembered and the army is very present with green looking new soldiers making their way with 'checkers' bags of treats and necessities through the streets, on what seemed like their first weekend off. We made friends with a local runner and he showed us the way to the army base, and even managed to drum up a lift for us. At the base, we tried to register, but we were roughly 4 hours too early and told to come back at 15h00. (In a very military manner!) This we duly did, and then tried to settle down for the night to get some sleep before our 3am wake up call.

Our shuttle arrived promptly at 4am and we made our way once more to the military base. Cars came in from all directions, and the infamous cattle trucks thundered past us, to the collection point. The great thing about this race, is that is a one way route, not a circular, or double lapper, but this meant that the start was out of town at the Cango Caves. The army supplied us a 'shuttle service' in these cattle trucks and we carefully climbed the tiny ladder into the backs of the truck. Luckily we had taken a warm top because once these soldier(or was it cowboys) drivers got going, they pushed pedal to the metal and moooooved (sorry, couldn't resist!). We all huddled together for warmth as the kays went flying by. In the crescent moonlight I noticed the mountains around and I looked up. The sky was magnificent, the stars seemed so endless and random placed, but breathtaking, and I was reminded of my younger days when we used to watch the stars on a blanket in our garden.

The lights grew brighter as we reached the start which was sheltered below the entrance to the caves and the military police waved all cars on by. Our trucked stopped and we gingerly climbed out on the skinny ladder. After the necessary queue for the toilet we met up with our other club members as well as an ex-Jozi-now-local Cape friend. It was a nice chit chat as we waited for the gun. The military men with the starting gun meant that the last truck was given only 10 seconds to get the bodies to the start and before the countdown. I watched as the 'almost' late-comers clamoured over the edges of the truck without the ladder so that they wouldn't miss the start.

The sky was lightening rapidly and we set off on exquisite routes, made all the more nicer because the first kay was downhill. We turned off for a short circular stretch to make up the distance, which meant that we could see the fast guys in action. There was also a wheelchair competitor, and 'Mr Wiki', remarked it was a perfect downhill route for the wheels!

The front runners were at this stage 5km's ahead of me, which was pretty usual, except I don't normally see them! I was running with a (flying!!!!) friend who had done this race before and she was in fine form. She has progressed so much over this past year, that she mentioned she didn't even feel the early uphills! So when I saw another uphill at about 12 km done, I took my chance for a walk and watched her get and smaller and smaller as she zoomed off on the other side of the downhill.

The tall hills meant that there was very welcome shade and coolness to the first 30km, but when the road started to level out a bit, the sun was on high power and the earth began to creak in the heat, or maybe that was me? The ostriches didn't seem to mind the heat, but galloped up and down along some of the fences as they watched us back-enders wilt by. The valley is beautiful, and I was surprised at how green and lush it looked. Some brave supporters sat in the shade of pavement trees and gave us a word of encouragement. Some eager youngsters ran along side me, and the one young chap managed to hold on for about 600 meters without saying a word. I started to smile, as I wondered how far he would run beside me, but some teens further down the road obviously intimidated him and he turned back to his small crowd.

At about 8km's to go, I noticed a familiar seconder who was waiting for someone and he had a cooler box. I asked him if he had any ice, and he said all he had was an orange 'icy'. I gleefully accepted it and I took my time chomping my way down this very welcome change of taste. I felt like a kid and it seemed to revive me a bit because I was able to pick up my pace again. By this time the town of Oudsthoorn could be seen quite clearly, but this messes with one's head, because 8km's is still a relatively long way on tired legs. So I looked for closer markers and targets and allowed the excellent support of the cheering soldiers at water points to lift my spirits. The last few water points were every 2km's and in this heat, it was a great relief. The ice cold water was so useful in cooling down a steaming head, and I heard a sizzle like a 'Spur hotrock' when I poured the water down my back!

At about 3km to go, my extremely fresh looking friend caught me, and was raring to go. She talked about chasing down a different seeding, but I didn't have the same kind of strength, so wished her on. She opted to slow down and stay with me and we took our time coming into the endlessly long stretch of grass around the final lap to the finish line. Not far behind us was our third friend, who was finishing her first qualifying marathon. So all in all a very successful race for our small group!

The bus trip back resulted in puffy feet and stiffness and soreness which had very little to do with the marathon, but more to do with the never-before-seen yoga poses that I ended up getting myself into, in an attempt to get some sleep. No matter how many seats you have to try stretch out on a bus, there is always a bit of handle, belt, plastic tray that seems to stick out and cause grievous bodily harm!

Next time, I'm taking the plane!!!